How materials science has changed humankind — for better and worse

The Alchemy of Us explores how new technologies have altered humans and society

Steel production

Advances in materials science have altered human society, as chronicled in The Alchemy of Us. Improved production of steel, for example, paved the way for railroads that linked far-flung cities and for accurate clocks that led to a new obsession with time.

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Alchemy of Us cover

The Alchemy of Us
Ainissa Ramirez
MIT Press, $27.95

Humans have continually wielded materials, from steel to silicon, in new ways to send technology leaping forward. But those technologies have unintentionally molded our bodies and society, materials scientist and science writer Ainissa Ramirez argues in The Alchemy of Us.

Increasingly precise clocks — based on steel springs and then quartz crystals — kept society humming along in unison. But with the Industrial Revolution’s focus on factory schedules, humans became ever more obsessed with time, and our sleep habits suffered. Likewise, electric lights made with carbon filaments let people work and play for longer hours, but upset circadian rhythms, with a variety of negative health impacts (SN: 10/17/16).

But the knock-on effects haven’t been all bad: Telegraph wires of iron and copper allowed news to travel quickly across the United States beginning in the 1840s. The technology’s demand for short communications helped shape the clipped style of American newspapers, whose reporters used the technology to send dispatches from afar. That style inspired the concise, clear prose of Ernest Hemingway, Ramirez argues.

Packed with engaging, little-known stories from the history of science, the book provides sharp, straightforward explanations of the materials science behind these tales. Ramirez carefully selects the characters in her narratives, making for a refreshing departure from the lone scientific genius trope. Instead, we meet Ruth Belville, who carried around a highly accurate pocket watch and “sold time” in early 20th century England, and chemist Caroline Hunter and photographer Ken Williams, Polaroid employees who in the 1970s fought their employer over the use of instant photography to monitor South Africans during apartheid.

Bucking the tendency for hero worship in histories of science, Ramirez notes the failings of the figures she profiles. For example, Samuel Morse, known for his work on the telegraph, supported slavery and railed against immigrants.

The author’s excitement is infectious: As she raves about the “marvelous metamorphosis that occurs when carbon combines with iron” to make steel, the substance suddenly seems wondrous, with cakelike layers that make it both malleable and strong. Steel reappears in later chapters, weaving into stories of technologies that hinged on improved steel production.

The connections Ramirez draws between seemingly disparate ideas in science and culture are engaging. Throughout the book, the message is somber, but hopeful: Materials change us in ways we hadn’t expected. But by being aware of these effects, society can choose how to respond.

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Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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